WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump urged world leaders to hold China accountable for the spread of the coronavirus, in a video address to a scaled-down U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday as America's death toll topped 200,000.
Beyond criticizing China, Trump took aim at the very foundation of the United Nations by urging other leaders to put their own countries first, a message that echoed his “America First” campaign mantra.
“Only when you take care of your own citizens, will you find a true basis for cooperation,” Trump said. “As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past — and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That’s OK. That’s what you should be doing.”
But it was the coronavirus that was both the core and the backdrop of Trump's address. Speeches by U.S. presidents are normally a highlight of the annual General Assembly, a premier event on the global diplomatic calendar. But this year's gathering is being held remotely because of the pandemic. Trump, denied an auditorium packed with global leaders, gave a speech lasting just under eight minutes, the shortest General Assembly speech by a U.S. president in more than two decades.
Under fire for his own handling of the coronavirus, Trump cast blame on China, noting the virus began there and accusing the Chinese government of acting irresponsibly in failing to contain it.
“The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions,” Trump said, without elaborating on what punishment he thought was warranted.
Trump's handling of the virus is a top issue in the presidential campaign. His Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, says Trump bungled the response to COVID-19 and is responsible for the U.S. having more deaths than any other nation. Trump minimized the danger of virus, encouraged the reopening of U.S. society even as the virus was spreading rapidly and continues to hold campaign rallies where few wear face masks or practice social distancing.
Trump also attacked China’s environmental record, even though his administration has rolled back or eliminated scores of existing or pending public health and environmental protections.
China's U.N. ambassador rejected criticism of China on its handling of COVID-19 as “totally baseless.”
“At this moment, the world needs more solidarity and cooperation, and not a confrontation,” Ambassador Zhang Jun said before introducing President Xi Jinping’s prerecorded speech.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world faces the risk of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China.
“Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities,” Guterres said. “A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”
Trump's U.N. address came as he faces an expected fight over a Supreme Court nomination and a heated reelection campaign in an America bitterly divided in Democratic and Republican camps.
The Republican president is running behind Biden in many polls, yet told the U.N. General Assembly that he'd be back next year.
“I am supremely confident that next year, when we gather in person, we will be in the midst of one of the greatest years in our history," Trump said.
Trump's address comes at a time when U.N. members are pushing back against Washington. On Monday, Trump declared that all U.N. sanctions against Iran have been reimposed, a move that most of the rest of the world rejects as illegal.
Trump's statement came shortly after he signed an executive order spelling out how the U.S. will enforce the “snapback” of sanctions. “My actions today send a clear message to the Iranian regime and those in the international community who refuse to stand up to Iran," he said.
The U.S. said it was reimposing sanctions on Iran for being in noncompliance with the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and global powers. But Trump in 2018 pulled out of the deal in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
Few U.N. member states believe the U.S. has the legal standing to restore the sanctions because Trump withdrew from the agreement. The U.S. argues it retains the right to do so as an original participant in the deal and a member of the council.
Trump also briefly highlighted agreements the U.S. brokered between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The historic agreements come as relations between the Jewish state and Arab nations are thawing as a pushback against Iran.
The president also mentioned the U.S. brokering of economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo.
He didn't mention the threat from North Korea's nuclear weapons. In his speech in 2017, Trump told the U.N. he was bringing a “message of peace,” but then said that if the U.S. was forced to defend itself against Kim Jong Un, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Trump called Kim “rocket man,” but later embraced him as a friend, met with him three times and proclaimed North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat to the U.S. So far, the Trump administration's diplomatic efforts to get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons have not succeeded.
Associated Press writers Hope Yen in Washington and Edith Lederer in New York contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Trump's speech was nearly eight minutes, not less than seven minutes.